Breaking News: Fish Oil Supplements “Out”?

Today the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study about the Association Between Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation and the Risk of Major Cardiovascular Disease Events. The popular media has picked this up and many headlines are focusing on removing these fish oil supplements from your medicine cabinet- is that the take-home message? Maybe not…

There are a few separate issues to discuss. First of all, note that the reason there was a study to begin with is that it has long been established that populations with primarily fatty fish-based diets have lower rates of heart disease. Being Americans looking for a quick fix, we’d rather pop a pill than change our behavior, so rather than add fish to our diets, we look to taking a capsule filled with fish oil. Supplement studies, however, have not been as robust in demonstrating the same heart benefits as simply changing your diet. This study was a meta-analysis that examined over 3600 previous studies, ultimately including 20 of them that met criteria to eliminate bias and make them truly “evidence based”. This included nearly 70,000 patients and their rates of heart attack, stroke, and death. Ultimately, fish oil supplements by themselves were NOT shown to lower the risk of death, heart attack or stroke. Do omega-3 supplements lower triglycerides? Yes- but if you are focusing on patient outcomes and not simply lab numbers, the benefits are not there.

Are there other reasons to consider taking fish oil supplements? Probably so, although I will continue to argue that you are better off adding salmon, tuna, trout or sardines to your diet several times per week. Beyond lowering triglycerides, Omega 3 Fatty Acids have been been recommended for potential benefit against numerous cancers, inflammatory bowel disease, dry eyes, rheumatoid arthritis and even dementia. If you are NOT willing to add fish to your routine diet, then taking fish oil supplements for any of these reasons may be beneficial, and there appear to be no serious negative effects (except for a shrinking wallet.)

BOTTOM LINE: If you are taking fish oil supplements to improve your cardiovascular health, you may be improving your lab values but not decreasing your risk of heart attack or stroke- go for a jog or go fishing (and eat your catch) instead. 

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